Marina Drazba

Marina Drazba's incredible journey has seen her expertise in landslides applied to educating communities in unexpected ways.

“My journey started when Professor Suzanne Wilkinson said yes. I sent out letters of intent to universities with disaster centres and she responded quickly, telling me that I was a good candidate and encouraged me to apply, and now I’m in the second year of my PhD.

“I’ve always had a firm idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it because I’ve been thinking about it for ten years, and Suzanne has been incredibly supportive – I’m absolutely loving it, and while it’s been a big challenge, it’s also a problem I can solve, so it’s the best thing.

"This isn’t a situation like being at work and having issues you can’t solve because they’re above your paygrade. It’s a problem I’ve constructed, I’ve seen, I’ve identified, and I’m unraveling it. It’s incredibly rewarding."

“Going to Bangladesh wasn’t originally part of the plan, but I was talking to one of Suzanne’s collaborators about how I wanted to work on landslides, and landslides in Fiji in particular because there’s a black hole of knowledge where I can help. His initial response was that landslides didn’t occur in Fiji until he was based at the Rohingya camp where he learnt that there is indeed, a massive landslide problem. He called me to see if I could write my thesis on this and got me on the RedR roster and the UN wrote a specific term of reference for me to show up. Now I get to specifically focus on landslide utilization for this area, as a landslide expert. It’s scary, daunting and exciting, all at the same time.

“Around 50 percent of my work is technical. I create a lot of the landslide susceptibility maps for areas that aren’t covered by another project. My maps basically determine who gets relocated and who doesn’t. I also look at things like, if it’s a hospital in a landslide area, I speak to their engineers about how we’ll stabilise the slope, explain why things are unsafe and what they need to look out for.

“My Bachelors and Masters degrees were in Geology; the latter was at Portland State University where I studied landslide susceptibility, though this has always been a pervasive subject in my life. I was in High School in Nicaragua when Hurricane Mitch hit, where 2,000 deaths were caused by landslides – this has always been at the back of my mind. I’ve seen and grew up with devastation, so this pathway feels natural to me.

“Landslides occur in the intersection between Geology and Engineering, but I’ve discovered that humanitarian work generally don’t. I see social aspects becoming more important, so this is what I’m trying to do. My original intention was for my PhD to be on resilience to landslides, but after just two months of working in the Rohingya, I’ve realised the importance of communication and how we – as engineers and geologists, as people who hold technical knowledge – need to be able to distil information. Landslides, which are about Physics, Chemistry, Geology and Mathematics, need to be brought to a level for a community with no education by design – they have an oral history, but no written history.

“That is why I wrote a children’s book on really technical stuff, which the Rohingya people and Bangladeshi Government are now using to do their landslide messaging. Some children put on a play based on it, which turned out to be really good. I was really nervous, because the messaging itself was difficult enough, so it was a new challenge to teach non-technical people who will carry on the messaging, and to work with artists with their own ideas. It was initially hard to let go, but cooling everyone’s biases and opinions were paramount, and ultimately, I learned that the images mattered more than its words. I know I’ve done my job when people can explain the images they see.

“I deal a lot with the protection team because my messaging is so sensitive; they’ve taken me under their wing and don’t understand overtly technical information, so I’ve been doing posters for them, the children’s book and play, and am now looking into writing a book on flooding and another on cyclones. I think I have grasped the wording – it’s one of the challenges of communicating Science. The difficulty of language is always something I’ve been aware of. I speak Spanish and have worked as a translator before, and have seen my technical work not interpreted effectively. This became clear through a funny situation where there was a fight over my book.

“I’d given it to a restaurant I liked the food at because I wanted the lady to teach me how to cook their delicious Rohingya curries. Anyway, she shared it with others and turns out a lot of people didn’t understand the language so they just looked at the images. The national forestry guide happened to be there and so was a hotel owner across the road, and they kind of fought over who gets to keep it. I stepped in and the forestry guide told me that landslides were an issue. Turns out, one was Rohingya and the other was Banga, and would like to learn, so I offered to teach them and bring books. I ended up teaching third graders and Rohingya women in the same class about the process of landslides. The forestry guide brought his people there too, so I taught both the host and refugee community. I’m training the trainers and everyone who comes across the book.

“I’m hoping that social context makes it easier for everyone to understand and export knowledge. I’ve worked on analogies that are commonplace in the sphere of the communities I’m in, because not everything that comes naturally to us are applicable – dams, for example, are too technical to explain, so I’ve started using the imagery of the mountain as a person, like, ‘how do you carry 50kgs of rice on your shoulders if you had no feet? Therefore, you need to buttress the feet, and add shoes to protect the slope’. I piloted this in three different pages to avoid bias. I had to remove a lot of human interactions to avoid it being idolatry. Everything that changes in the story related to the mountain falling, so hopefully the people will understand that the mountain will always be there, but it’s dynamic and changing.

"My perception is that of the 300 people I’ve taught so far taught another 20, that’s 6,000 people who may go on to teach another 20 people. Eventually it’ll reach 2.4 million people, which will cover everyone I need to – the next challenge is to quantify that for my thesis, but right now, my goal is to hook them in."

“Studies have shown that spending even just ten percent of money upfront on disaster risk reduction will save a lot of money – and lives – further down the line. Looking back, I think it’s easier to teach a population that’s uneducated and motivated to change, than to teach one that’s educated but unmotivated. I’ve seen how strong the Rohingya’s sense of community is; I know they’re telling their mates and their children, and the children will teach their mothers because they’re excited about the story.

“What I find amazing about the work so far is how tangible and real it is. I’ve worked on projects in the past that took ten years to come to fruition where I was just a smaller piece, but here, I was everywhere. The two months happened so quickly – I was managing a construction site from start to finish, looking at all preliminary reports, doing the project management, and it all had to be done before I left. That doesn’t always happen, and I’d love to continue doing this work because it’s so diverse.

“There are still challenges to working in this field as a woman. It’s still male dominated and religion is important in the case I’m working in, so I’ve had to deal with a lot of men in power. I’m pretty subversive though! I have a strong voice and didn’t prevaricate. I was direct, which people respected. I think it doesn’t matter where you come from when it’s an emergency situation. Getting things done quickly and effectively speaks louder than gender, and I’m also the only technical expert on landslides in my division. I’ve worked with a lot of strong women, but also some strong men who have been pretty clear in saying that they have my back whenever I needed it – the support from everyone has been really vital.

“I think technical communication of any hazard is one of the biggest gaps we have in knowledge. There’s a lack of understanding in the general population and I don’t think as experts we’ve done a particularly good job at explaining them. I finally got to distill this understanding through the experience of making myself a central point to present data and teach people, but this is a privilege that most people don’t get to have. I’d still like to keep my foot in the technical side, but as scientists and engineers, communication is definitely a schism we have that needs to be bridged.”

You can read more coverage on Marina's work in the Globe and Mail